Eastern University Charter School is facing closure by the Philadelphia School District after repeatedly under-performing on standardized tests, compared with the district and other charter schools. During one year, none of its seventh or eighth graders tested proficient in math.

But CEO Omar Barlow says the school is succeeding in other ways. Nearly three-quarters of its students went to college in the fall after graduating last year, compared with just half of the district’s, and the percentage was even lower for the comprehensive high schools Barlow says his students would have otherwise attended.

He sees a different reason for his school’s nonrenewal.

Barlow, who is black and whose school’s enrollment is 95 percent black, says he believes race was a factor. “What else could they be targeting, when a number of traditional public schools that our young people would attend if we closed are failing miserably?"

Over the last five years, nine of 14 Philadelphia charter schools that have closed or agreed to close if they didn’t meet conditions were minority-run, according to district officials. Four of five pending nonrenewal earlier this year were minority-run — defined by the district as having a black or Latino CEO at the time of its closure recommendation.

The School District has acknowledged concerns over closures of minority-led charters, meeting with “a group of African American stakeholders” earlier this year, said district spokesperson Megan Lello.

A document prepared by the district for that meeting says its Charter Schools Office “has been committed to taking steps to reduce inequities in our systems,” including by accounting for demographic differences among schools and “providing resources and guidance to level the playing field.”

Black leaders said they wouldn’t cite racism as the sole reason for every closure. But they see less philanthropic support for black-led schools, double standards in district evaluations, and less advocacy on their behalf.

“There’s a pattern of different treatment," contingent on “how much access” a school has to financial and political capital, said Larry Jones, CEO of Richard Allen Preparatory Charter. The school, whose enrollment is 87 percent black, was facing closure but reached a deal with the district in December to stay open through 2021.

“I don’t think the School District is sitting down and saying, There’s a school run by black people ... let’s get rid of them,” said Jones, who is black. “What I do think is, it becomes easier to target.”

The charters that have closed in Philadelphia — which has 87 serving close to 70,000, or one-third of public school students — have all been individually operated, according to the district.

Asked at a panel discussion last week at Mastery Shoemaker Charter how many black leaders of charter networks there were in the city, charter leaders struggled to identify more than a few.

“Too few,” said Jessica Cunningham Akoto, CEO of KIPP Philadelphia, which has five charters and is part of a national network.

Audience members listen during the town hall event "Is School Choice the Black Choice?” at Mastery Shoemaker on May 29.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Audience members listen during the town hall event "Is School Choice the Black Choice?” at Mastery Shoemaker on May 29.

Some leaders, such as Naomi Johnson-Booker, an African American who is a former longtime School District official, say the district continues to treat black-led charters unfairly. Johnson-Booker is CEO of Global Leadership Academies, which operates two West Philadelphia K-8s and in February applied to open a high school. She is still waiting for an answer.

“When I see that you’re giving seats to Caucasian-led charters ... that tells me there’s something wrong here,” she said. At its most recent meeting, the school board approved a request by Mariana Bracetti Charter to enroll 245 more students.

That school, in Frankford, received higher academic ratings from the district than Johnson-Booker’s.

Lello declined to comment on Johnson-Booker’s request or the nonrenewal of Barlow’s school.

Nationally, the education-reform movement’s focus on test scores and replication of schools in charter networks has not favored minority-led, independent charters, said Derrell Bradford, executive vice president of 50CAN, a national group that supports charter schools.

“Just like in every other part of life, minority entrepreneurs don’t necessarily have the same philanthropic contacts, access to capital, and same social networks that many of the early charter school founders" and charter management organizations had, Bradford said, referring to groups like KIPP and Mastery that draw investment from foundations.

Johnson-Booker and others said district officials should offer a hand to minorities.

“If I’m opening up a new school, at the very least they could give me a list of good lawyers we could use, a list of good finance people we could use, so we could have a resource,” she said.

Charter schools have been controversial. They are funded publicly but managed independently, and their academic results have been mixed.

In light of struggles of individual charters, advocates are now debating a “more nuanced view of achievement" for schools, said Bradford, and that debate “could grow a lot faster.”

In Philadelphia, where the district evaluates charters not just on academic achievement, but organizational compliance and financial stability, some say test score standards aren’t the problem for black-led schools.

Farah Jimenez, who served on the former School Reform Commission, said charters were being held to similar academic standards.

But “where there were elements of performance that were non-academic in nature, that with support could be cured, that support wasn’t available," said Jimenez, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Education Fund. She said “disproportionately, minority-led charters were impacted through the rubric” used by the charter schools office to review performance.

Jones, of Richard Allen charter, said “a lot of the ways the School District has been able to evaluate charter schools seem like they’re extremely objective. But there’s a lot of subjectivity;" for example, in evaluating a school’s mission.

Unlike other black-led charters that closed, Jones’ school was permitted to remain open. “The district understood there were some things happening, and they needed to make some changes,” Jones said. But he said the deal — the school agreed to surrender its charter in 2021 if it didn’t raise test scores — was “very difficult.”

“If we had $10 million sitting somewhere, we most likely would have said, Why would we take this arrangement?” he said.

After not being renewed by the SRC in April 2018, Barlow’s Eastern Academy charter appealed to the state Charter Appeals Board and is awaiting a decision. The school argues it was unfairly compared with the district’s magnet schools, which have admissions standards, and was subjected to “unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious” standards.

The district says the school is not what it promised to be, failing to live up to its goal of being an “early-college” program with students taking college classes. It also says Eastern University is no longer affiliated with the school.

Despite the uncertainty, Barlow said most parents at the school have enrolled their children for the coming year.

“We’re doing something right," he said. "Let’s sit down and have that conversation.”